An Alaska Woman’s Voyage Out of the Killing Fields of Cambodia (KTVA.com exclusive)
Samantha Bouasri recalls her hellish trip escaping the Khmer Rouge and arriving in an America not as welcoming as she’d imagined
By 1976 there was no one left for Bouasri to care for.
Before that fateful day, April 17, 1975, her home housed six families: her own, and relatives of her parents. Their family farm thrived and neighbors would offer to trade labor, fabrics, blankets and various trinkets for food. Every time the children came home from school they would bring four or five more mouths to feed. “No, it was not always a happy time, but it was happier than any other memory I have in Cambodia.” Bouasri says. “My family did whatever they could to help other people. People did what they could to survive, men would sell their children and sisters for money.”
Bouasri reflects on another painful memory of life in Cambodia. It’s a memory that makes the happiness and joy of her younger years seems like something of a fairy tale.
It is the day she took her turn in the death pit.
“We were to be in line at 3 a.m., if you were not there in time they would beat you and torture you.”
She took her place in line and crowded with other “enemies,” as the Khmer Rouge referred to them, by the brick wall of a local elementary school. Beneath her was a muddy pit awaiting her arrival. “There was a tall man in front of me; he was sobbing,” says Bouasri. “Right before the soldier took his shot, the man grabbed me by the shoulder to try and stop the bullet from hitting him. The next thing I knew I was laying face first in the mud with a 120-pound man over the top of me.”
The bullet had missed her.
“I was in shock.” She remembers laying face-first in the mud “playing dead. I couldn’t believe it – they thought they killed me.” Bouasri says. “So I just laid there until they walked away. I waited ‘til night and escaped.”
At first she remembered being upset with the man but reflecting on it now now she is grateful. “He saved my life.”
Bouasri returned unnoticed – the Khmer Rouge didn’t track who they killed – to the village she’d been living in.
Finally in 1979 Samantha started walking with her grandmother, father and her father’s new wife. The goal was simple: walk until they were in a Thai refugee camp.
At the start of the Cambodian genocide, her mother and father were married. Months later when she was reunited with her father he was remarried with no idea where her mother was.
In years to come Bouasri would find out her mother was forced to remarry and had lived in Vietnam after the war.
Eventually her small group made it to the first refugee camp, after weeks of walking and crawling at night through the long jungle grass. Shortly after arriving, Bouasri fell severely ill. “I was a skeleton and my hair was falling out.”
She suspects her illness was the consequence of living in a chemical storage plant she was forced to stay in under the Khmer Rouge’s power. “Who knows?” she says with a shrug.